ABOVE: MICHAEL PREYSMAN (FAR RIGHT) WITH DEVENDRA BANHART AND ANA KRAS AT EVERLANE'S FIRST-BIRTHDAY PARTY, AT CITY GRIT. IMAGE COURTESY OF BILLY FARRELL/BFANYC.COM
To get a sense for the values Michael Preysman hopes to espouse with the fashion brand he founded a year ago, Everlane, you need only visit its website. Its design is minimal, orderly—no clutter on the page—but inviting, with handsome typography and a large photo carousel highlighting Scottish wool scarves and fine silk blouses. Blurbs tell you what you need to know, but don't overload you with information; it's a controlled experience. There's no room for chaos in the Everlane universe.
Everlane's offerings share a similar aesthetic. The collection, thus far, is small: one style of cashmere sweater, one tee, one men's button-down, etc., all designed by perfectionists and available at surprisingly affordable price points. The brand was born when Preysman, then working in finance, discovered the margin of markup employed by most major luxury brands: up to 800%. He set out to create a line that would source the very best materials from all the same factories as those brands—but would operate solely online, cutting out the overhead costs posed by brick-and-mortar stores.
In its first year, Everlane has gained a half-million registered users; but Preysman's just getting started. This week, the brand will launch a pop-up for the holidays, the Everlane Workshop, where guests can try on Everlane designs and create custom products—with workshops including cashmere elbow patches, tie making, and belt design—all week.
ALEXANDRIA SYMONDS: You started in finance—what happened to make you want to switch to clothing design?
MICHAEL PREYSMAN: I spent like three years in private equity, and we looked at Facebook, and we looked at Yelp, and investing in these companies, and it was totally rad. And then I sort of looked at everyone in the industry and I was like, "I do not want to be any of you." On a personal level, I have tons of friends who are still in the industry, and I know they're not happy. I sort of made that realization that there's more to life. It was crazy for me—it was this one weekend where I forced myself to write down the people that I admired in the world, and not a single one of them was in finance, and I was like, "I cannot go through life not trying to be the kind of person that I admire."
SYMONDS: Do you remember some of the people who were on that list?
PREYSMAN: Oh, my God, it's going to be so corny. It was everybody from Michael Eisner to Mickey Drexler. There were people like my dad, who had started two companies and moved from Russia when he was 25 with nothing—they literally had, when they came here, I think $100—just got a job and made it work in the end. I really wish I had my original list—I think the names are probably different, because I know more about the world today than I did two years ago.
And so for me it was like, "I'm leaving a job, what am I going to do, I'm going to go try to start something." And I really saw this opportunity at the time—not just a fashion brand, but an idea that online retail, or just retail in general, is so broken. There have been so many industries that have been transformed over the past 10 years—you know it, with online versus offline journalism, to Amazon.com, to Facebook, to Google—the number of the web has transformed the way we work and the way we think is really magnificent, and I think it hasn't done that much on the fashion or design side of the world.
That was what we started with, and it took us a year to get to launching our first set of products and figuring out that that was the right thing to do: to try to build a brand online only, without any of the traditional costs of retail; and one that sort of pushes forward this idea of minimalism and transparency in a way that I don't think others are doing right now.
SYMONDS: Did you have contacts in the fashion or design world when you first started? How did you find your designers?
PREYSMAN: I had a few friends that like, I made friends with this guy who ran a button-down shirt [line], and then he introduced me to a couple others, and then slowly, piece by piece, I made friends with people in the industry.
SYMONDS: You source from the exact same factories and mills as a lot of leading luxury brands, a discovery process you've compared to spying. Can you tell me about it?
PREYSMAN: We have these scarves that are made in old Scottish mills—of the top five brands in the world, they work with two of them. I was in a store and I saw this beautiful scarf, and I asked who it was made by, and it was made by this Scottish mill. So we literally went on Google and looked up this factory, and I found the person who runs it in Scotland, and I found the person who runs the US operations, and then I used an e-mail verifier to find the structure of their e-mail addresses. It was like an hour and a half of Googling. We e-mailed them and told them the story of who we are and that we're super excited that we've got the opportunity to work with you—and then we're in the factory.
And the way we did it with our silk blouses is we literally said, "Okay, who makes really beautiful silk blouses?" There's also this really great service called Panjiva—technology nowadays allows you to see so much more into the world than you did before. You can look up any brand and any factory and see who they work with. Now, we're making enough friends that it becomes easier and easier, so the hunt becomes faster.
SYMONDS: It seems like in that respect, Everlane is a very "of this moment" kind of company. Even two or three years ago, it seems like it would have been impossible or much, much harder to create the kind of company that you've created. Do you think that's true?
PREYSMAN: There's a number of things you could do nowadays but you couldn't do five years ago, like finding these factories, the way we communicate. The number of people we Skype with is incredible overseas. And the web has allowed things to propagate and spread much faster than they ever would. You know, a viral video can get the attention of seven million people in like two days. And so today we can build a company with so little time [spent] on major advertising campaigns, and instead we rely on people like you and me to tell their friends and that's like a totally different thing than five years ago.
SYMONDS: The prevalence of fast-fashion luxury collaborations over the last few years—Margiela for H&M, Jason Wu for Target—has done a good job at starting a conversation about the idea of democratizing fashion. But my impression of Everlane is you're doing something similar, but in almost completely the opposite way.
PREYSMAN: Totally. I think those things are a great way for Rodarte, Jason Wu, Margiela or Missoni to get to a different customer base while still not diluting the brand in a way, we're not anti-fast fashion—but we kind of are. We're building things that we want to last a long time. I'm sure we both read the same article about Zara and the company does so much revenue every year and people now buy things and just throw them away. We're trying to push ourselves away from that.
Somebody asked me, "What do you think has really changed over the past 10 to 20 years?" In fashion, I think one of the biggest things is it's hard to tell quality anymore. People are so good at making that product look amazing, but you never know how it's going to wear. We are trying to go a little bit counter to that and say, "Hey, let's make something that lasts you a long time, and if it doesn't, we've done a poor job." There are brands that do that very well, but they're generally not fashion brands.
SYMONDS: I don't know if you've read any of the articles about how organizations that are working on Sandy relief are just turning away clothing donations now—and there's a larger narrative that has been reported in the last year or so, that places like Goodwill and the Salvation Army have too many clothing donations, because people just buy too much clothing.
PREYSMAN: I mean, it's weird—we're selling a product, at the end of the day, but in a lot of ways, we're selling a product and we're trying to get people to buy less.
SYMONDS: Right, which is so antithetical to how it normally works.
PRESYMAN: I'd hope people just buy a few button-downs, a few silk blouses, a few of this; buy the essential pieces you need. Peter Menzel went around the country and photographed how different people live, in the '90s, and it's crazy to see how much Americans own. I wish he did that 10 years later, because it's got to be so much more.
SYMONDS: Presumably you want the brand to keep expanding, and you're introducing new products, so how do you keep that growth manageable? How are you balancing it with the kind of essential company ethos of sticking to the very best of the basics?
PREYSMAN: My goodness, this is a challenging question. We don't know yet, is the answer. What we're trying to do, we don't release too many colors, we don't offer a ton of choice. A guy needs a blazer at some point, a button down, a belt, shoes, so the way we think about it is slowly building up those collections of pieces. We have a weekend bag, a backpack, and a tote. The idea is not offering eight different weekend bags. It's creating that one essential piece, and then moving on to the next thing.
THE EVERLANE WORKSHOP IS AT 74 GANSEVOORT STREET FROM NOVEMBER 30 THROUGH DECEMBER 9. FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT THE BRAND'S WEBSITE.